Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito speaks with local officials virtually on June 23.

At a time when much of the nation is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito expressed gratitude that the residents and local officials in Massachusetts have remained vigilant in following public health guidance and controlling the spread, an effort that resulted in zero COVID deaths reported yesterday.

“So I feel grateful,” she said in a weekly call with local officials from across the state convened by the MMA, “but I feel very anxious because we want to make sure that this moment is not fleeting. … So we all need to continue to do our part. … We want to keep moving forward.”

She continued with “a big shout out to the local boards of health.”

“You have been amazing throughout this whole process,” she said, from initial emergency response to testing and tracing to “your enforcement of the rules that we put out there, which has been extraordinary.”

Three and a half weeks into Phase 2 of the state’s four-phase reopening plan, she said the administration continues to monitor public health data and may have an announcement in the next day or two about Phase 3, which would begin no earlier than next Monday, July 6. She added that the state is likely to remain in Phase 3 for a longer period than the three-week minimum allowed for previous phases.

Activities scheduled for resumption in Phase 3 include museums, aquariums, performance venues and movie theaters (at moderate capacity), fitness and health clubs, certain sports programs and activities, sightseeing and organized tours, and casinos.

Phase 3 also calls for a different standard for gatherings, which Polito said is being evaluated now. The current order, which took effect on June 6, limits gatherings to 10 people and prohibits large civic, entertainment and sporting events.

Yesterday, the administration announced that, effective today, travelers from the New England states, New York and New Jersey, including residents returning home, are no longer required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Workers designated by the federal government as essential critical infrastructure workers are also exempt from the quarantine directive. Travelers who are displaying symptoms of COVID-19 are instructed to not travel to Massachusetts.

Polito said the administration has also been focusing on economic recovery and housing issues, particularly during a recession, when many residents are having a hard time affording their rent or mortgage. She highlighted a $275 million COVID-19 economic recovery package unveiled last Friday – an update to economic development legislation originally filed on March 4 with an additional $35 million. Rolled into the bill is the administration’s Housing Choices Act, which is strongly supported by the MMA and a broad coalition of stakeholders.

“We took another look at our economic development bill,” she said, “and we thought about repositioning certain elements of it to address equity and to address recovery.”

She was hopeful that the Legislature would pass the bill before the end of formal sessions on July 31.

She also discussed an additional $20 million the administration is making available for programs to help renters and homeowners keep up with housing payments and to make more people eligible for state aid. A new Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance program will provide up to $4,000 to eligible households that have fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments in recent months.

Reopening schools
Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley outlined the initial guidance released last week for reopening K-12 public schools this fall, which asks school districts by mid-August to develop three sets of plans: for in-person learning, a hybrid of in-school and remote learning on alternating schedules, and a remote learning-only contingency, in case schools need to be closed again due to a spike in COVID cases.

The DESE guidance prioritizes getting students back into classrooms, following a comprehensive set of health and safety requirements. Schools are asked to aim for a physical distance of 6 feet between students when feasible, with 3 feet as a minimum, in accordance with the latest guidance from the World Health Organization. The department is asking school officials to change classroom configurations to ensure adequate distance, and to set up additional classrooms in libraries, auditoriums and cafeterias, if necessary.

Riley said all school districts should now be working on a feasibility study “to figure out how many desks, for instance, can be in any one classroom,” and to see if scheduling adjustments might need to be made in order to educate all students and maintain at least 3 feet between them.

“We believe that there will be many districts that will be able to, even with these guidelines, just bring their kids completely back to school without making many changes,” he said. “We think there may be some schools that will have to stand up additional classrooms. … And there may be a smaller number of districts who can’t make it work because either the classroom space is too small or their class size numbers are too big, and they may need to default to a hybrid model, for instance.”

All educators and staff will be required to wear masks or face coverings in schools, as will students in second grade or higher, with time built in for mask breaks throughout the day. Kindergarten and first-grade students will be encouraged to wear a mask or face shield, and all students will need to wear masks on school buses.

The guidance urges children and staff to stay home when they’re not feeling well, and Riley said DESE is “going to try to offer some relief to schools regarding attendance requirements” due to a higher anticipated number of absences.

Riley stressed the prominent role of the medical community in the development of the guidance.

“For our initial fall guidance, the state’s pediatricians have wholeheartedly endorsed our plan,” he said. “We’ve got to kind of … balance the risk of not sending kids to school with the risk of sending kids to school, and the pediatricians believe that right now … [that] if we do the handwashing, if we do the distancing, and we do the mask wearing with regularity, schools are a low-transmission place, and they’re safer than many other places out there, and the kids should go back to school.”

He said additional, more comprehensive guidance for school districts will be coming later this month. This guidance will cover areas such as student transportation, athletics and extracurricular activities.

“We as an educational community have to be nimble and be ready for all possibilities, because we just don’t know,” he said. “This year, because the direction of the virus is unknown, and because the budget is still unknown, we’re going to have to be ready to kind of operate and move on a dime, which is why I’ve asked districts to prepare for those three possibilities to date.”

He said a fourth possibility – returning to school without restrictions – would require widespread uptake of a vaccine or a reliable treatment for COVID.

In case remote learning becomes necessary, the administration has allocated $25 million matching grants for technology to help districts meet technology needs.

“We’re going to take it on a needs basis,” he said. “But that will go a long way toward plugging any technology gaps that we have in the state.”

Riley urged local officials to support the DESE’s efforts to ensure that schoolchildren are up-to-date on their vaccinations and that they get a flu shot in the fall.

Asked how schools should deal with families who refuse to have their children wear face coverings, Riley suggested holding a conference with the parents to explain why the masks are an important tool for controlling the spread of COVID. Local officials asked DESE to help with materials and messaging that will help educators make this case.

In response to a question about feasibility planning, Riley said his department would be open to considering solutions such as a temporary regional approach to managing classroom needs.

“We’re looking to help communities to figure out what works best for them,” he said.

The administration last week announced the allocation of approximately $200 million from the Commonwealth’s federal Coronavirus Relief Fund for costs related to reopening public schools. Schools may receive up to $225 per student for eligible costs due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, such as training for school staff, supplemental social and academic services, reconfiguration of school spaces, leasing of temporary facilities, and acquisition of health and hygiene supplies. DESE Associate Commissioner/CFO Bill Bell said his department is working with the Executive Office for Administration and Finance to develop the grant details and the application information should be available sometime next week.

Audio of July 1 call with administration (35M MP3)

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